Thoughts on the Dying Process

I’ve had some thoughts recently on the dying process that I’ve been trying to think of how to convey.  Here’s what I’ve got so far, don’t take it too seriously because even I’m not sure about it:

Generally, there are two dominant narratives on death in our culture.

The first says that the body separates from the soul, and the soul passes into either an afterlife or reincarnation.  This is the dualist position of the separate body and soul which is common across cultures.  To this view, the near death experience is a witness testimony to the existence of Heaven (and more rarely, Hell).

The second narrative says that what we call the soul is a function of the body, and is no more reborn than a computer is reborn after its hard drive is wiped.  To this view, the near death experience is the result of a recently-discovered phenomenon in which the dying brain releases massive amounts of a potent psychoactive compound called Dimethyl Tryptamine (DMT) and sends the brain on a goodbye trip before shutting down completely in a final wave of terminal activity.

But what if the evidence of these two positions was less contradictory than we presumed?  Where would you find any sort of common ground between them?

The answer, to me, is in the DMT.

Now, it’s time for a confession which might well discredit me.  I have used psychedelics.  Where I live, it’s extremely easy to get things like psilocybe mushrooms and there is a local variety (p. azurescens) that is extremely potent.  Before trying these, I spent a great deal of time researching how to make the most of it, and it seems the best thing you can do is make yourself comfortable, think good thoughts, and don’t fight where it wants to take you.  This was not what induced past life memories (that was a product of severe stress) but it did produce vivid sensations of acceleration, weightlessness, and brief, temporary losses of ego.  It is worth noting that by being mindful of set and setting, I have never experienced what some call a “bad trip.”

What I have discovered, however, is that the quality of insight you have will be directly proportional to the quality of what your mind is focused on.  Obviously, you’re not going to have an epiphany getting stoned while watching old reruns of Ren and Stimpy stuffing your face with Cheetos.  Garbage in, garbage out.  If you give your mind shits and giggles, you will get only shits and giggles, but if you give it something profound to ponder, then you’ll find you are a more insightful being than you ever knew.  It is the door, but not the path.

Now consider this: psilocybin (along with LSD) is a DMT analog.  It produces much the same effects.  Also consider that the sort of tranquility and acceptance required for a psychedelic experience is much like the frame of mind proposed in the Bardo Thodol (or Tibetan Book of the Dead, as it is known in the West).

This could mean any and all of the following:

*That Timothy Leary was correct in finding a parallel between the psychedelic experience and the Bardo Thodol, even though it was not known in his time that the dying brain releases DMT.

*That psychedelic drugs could induce the state of readiness for transcending and understanding death and rebirth, though not enlightenment itself.

*That we know of Heaven from those who have passed through a positive Bardo state because they had the correct set and setting when they died.

*That we know of Hell from those who passed through a negative Bardo state because they died fearful, unprepared, or consumed by guilt.

This last point seems to be borne out by my memories of how John felt after death, in a confusing morass of form and shape coupled by an unpleasant and frightening sensation of moving simultaneously in a thousand directions without going anywhere.  I have spoken to others who remember passing through something closer to an NDE description of heaven, and this would also explain the small but significant number of people whose NDEs provided a Hellish experience.  Those who are uncertain about their personal beliefs or are killed in bad situations (like, say, a muddy trench in France) would be the most vulnerable.

There is one problem with all this that I’m trying to hash out: what happens in violent deaths where the brain is destroyed before you can have any sort of trip, good or bad?  Would it lead to a confused Bardo state?  Is this where hauntings come from, perhaps?  This is important because so many of those killed in the Great War were simply blown to pieces too small to gather.  If the body and soul are a dual entity, then it would stand to reason that the soul would leave a body quite forcefully in that case, but without the chemical guide to map things for their dying minds, how would it know where to go next?  Would they even know they were dead?

The hypothesis is imperfect and relies on a lot of suppositions, but it is interesting to consider the parallels between Buddhist conceptions of the afterlife, the psychedelic experience, and the scientific evidence of the dying process.

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